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History and art converge in the Toledo Museum of Art’s upcoming exhibit celebrating Oliver Hazard Perry’s decisive defeat of the British 200 years ago in the Battle of Lake Erie.
The 40-work exhibit’s centerpiece is the quintessentially heroic Thomas Birch painting Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie (1814), a large piece that he began painting just weeks after the battle.
The painting revolves around the Lawrence, Perry’s original ship that had been heavily battered by the British barrage. Its sails are ripped, there are holes in its sides, and the lake is crowded with ships firing on each other, most notably the Niagara, which opened up heavily on the enemy after Perry climbed aboard it in the middle of the fighting.
The Sept. 10, 1813, battle near Put-in-Bay helped swing the War of 1812 in the favor of the United States and cemented Perry’s reputation as a bona fide American hero.
The exhibit’s curator, Ed Hill, said Birch’s decision to place the Lawrence as the focal point of the 5-foot-by-8-foot painting despite the fact that it was essentially dead in the water gives the painting some of its inherent drama.
“I think it’s fascinating that he would put the Niagara in this position where it’s not the most visible; I suspect because he wanted to highlight what had been done to the Lawrence, to give the impression of what Perry must have gone through,” Hill said while looking at the Birch painting.
“My guess is that he wanted to show that even getting pummeled by part of the largest Navy in the world — the British — and even though they had basically reduced this ship to almost a hulk, they are still able to continue on.”
The painting usually hangs in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, but is on loan to the TMA for the Perry’s Victory: The Battle of Lake Erie exhibit, which runs from Friday to Nov. 10.
The free exhibit that will be on display in Galleries 28 and 29 is the museum’s way of marking the 200th anniversary of the battle. It will include art works, artifacts and historical documents drawn from the Toledo museum, the Pennsylvania institution, the University of Michigan, private collectors and others.
It also will provide a fascinating glimpse into what amounts to early 19th century pop culture that reflects the patriotic values of this country and the fairly mercenary attitudes of the British merchant class.
For example, Hill showed a beautiful, elaborate cotton handkerchief adorned with detailed depictions of glorious victories by the young United States over the world’s pre-eminent superpower. So this was probably made in Boston or Philadelphia, right?
Wrong. Just a few years after the war, British entrepreneurs were hocking souvenirs to America that celebrated their own loss.
“You have all this very patriotic stuff that was made in England and shipped over here to be sold. Everything’s patriotic, ‘War declared against England’ right here. I guess England really is a nation of merchants,” Hill said.
Among the more odd artifacts in the exhibit are canes made of wood from the ships that were in the battle, including a cane that was used by the great 19th century orator Henry Clay, who at the time was considered a War Hawk, thanks to his eagerness to take on Britain.
The University of Michigan purchased the Perry family archives, so the display will include a letter signed by President James Madison promoting Perry to commandant, a letter from the great officer to his wife that was written in Sandusky just a few days after the battle, and other paintings and prints that depict the battle.
Of course the exhibit revolves around the art work that emanated from Perry’s victory on Lake Erie, which was the result of bravado, tactical proficiency, and luck. Four paintings will show the battle from various angles and most of them will include diagrams that describe the positions of the ships and the significance of the particular perspective, Hill said.
Artists at the time were diligent about getting things right and many of them — including Birch — communicated via letter with Perry to ensure their paintings were accurate. Hill, who has spent a year curating the exhibit, said that fact stood out to him most among all the things he learned putting it together, noting that getting it right trumped exaggerating the events to put the winning side in a better light.
“I never realized with all these battle paintings how concerned with accuracy they were. I thought just they painted a few ships fighting each other, a generic view. I found that fascinating that at least from the American point of view you didn’t have propaganda creeping through,” he said.
Perry emerged from the battle venerated for his decision to leave the battered Lawrence aboard a row boat that traveled a half mile in the middle of the action so he could take command of the Niagara. Two prints show the moment with him standing in the small boat as shells land in the water around him.
That moment is cited as the turning point of the battle, thanks to Perry’s courage and refusal to accept defeat.
“This event ends up becoming for most of the writers at the time the pivotal moment of the battle, that point in time. What the writers said was that he was like Achilles, a Greek hero, one person who changes the battle,” Hill said.
“Most normal battles like this, the two armies fight, someone gives up and it’s over. Here it looked pretty bad for Perry and his flagship. He decides to take his battle flag down, go over and get another ship and go back in. He made the difference in the battle.”
Also on display at the exhibit will be the Gilbert Stuart portrait of Perry that already hangs in the TMA.
Perry’s Victory: The Battle of Lake Erie opens Friday and runs until Nov. 10. Admission to the museum is free and there is no extra cost to view the Perry exhibit. Information: 419-255-8000, 1-800-644-6862, or www.toledomuseum.org.
Contact Rod Lockwood at email@example.com or 419-724-6159.